Quite a while ago, I noticed that the quite wonderful London based chamber rock group North Sea Radio Orchestra plus guests were performing a live version of Rock Bottom, the 1974 first post-accident solo album from the now British National Treasure otherwise known as Robert Wyatt, for Italian and French audiences. This seemed like a marvellous prospect, and I awaited an appearance of this iteration on these benighted shores with unseemly anticipation. When the date of the London gig was announced, as is the way with these things, it inevitably coincided with your humble scribe being away on his holidays. To say I was a tad disappointed would be akin to the feeling Michael Collins must have had when told he was staying in the tin can. Well, okay, maybe not that devastated, but you get my drift.
As no-one else from the TPA not-so-Massive was at the gig, it would be remiss of our august journal not to pass comment on this momentous musical happening, and luckily for us and you all, the group recorded their take on this landmark record, complemented by four more tracks from across the career of one of Great Britain’s finest musical innovators.
I am sure all of you who have read this far will be well aware of the gestation of the original album, an musical landmark, a lot of which was written prior to Wyatt’s life-changing accident on 1st July 1973, belying the often incorrect assumption that the deeply personal lyrics of loss, yearning and love flowed as a direct result of the author’s alcohol aided plunge from a third floor window at a party on that fateful date, that left him paralysed from the waist down.
As is the case with all cover versions, a band or solo performer has to put their own stamp on the original, especially one as known and revered as this, otherwise, what is the point? North Sea Radio Orchestra plus their guests John Greaves, Annie Barbazza, and William D. Drake certainly do this, and then some. As Robert Wyatt himself has said: “These musicians have really grasped what the songs are about, but at the same time created an entirely fresh way of putting the music together.” Recorded live, and superbly mixed and mastered by Alberto Callegari at Elfo Recording Studios, Tavernago, Italy during the “Musiche Nuove a Piacenza Festival” in November 2018, the sound is simply stunning.
Craig Fortnam’s arrangements and instrumentation are by necessity more full, intricate perhaps, than the original, but manage to retain the fragility and power of Wyatt’s defining art rock statement while adding their own unique instrumental embellishments, courtesy of the chamber-rock set up of NSRO. Annie Barbazza’s fantastic range does fine justice to Robert Wyatt’s emotive poetry, and the melancholy of Sea Song, and the urgency of Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road remain, all fed through the enhanced NSRO filter. Throughout the album, you can feel the emotion seeping through the zeros and ones and out the speakers, and I defy anyone to listen to this album and not be moved.
Long-time Wyatt collaborator John Greaves, although not on the original record, is deeply musically connected to its creator, and his left-field pop inclinations make him an obvious choice to aid this interpretation, and fittingly it is John’s voice that takes on Ivor Cutler’s surreal spoken word outro on the final track, Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road.
Of the bonus tracks, Craig Fortnam takes the vocal on Wyatt’s best-known number in the wider world, written for him by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer. This version of Shipbuilding retains the despairing lament of the original, and Craig’s London inflected tones connect it to Robert’s original plaintive take. Its anti-war sentiment is as true today as ever, we never learn from history. John Greaves’ vocal on a heartfelt O Caroline, replete with altered lyrics offering a nice compliment to its writer, is a suitable end to an uplifting and joyous album, easily a contender for my Album of The Year.
Finally, a word on the sumptuous vinyl pressing, which with its multi-fold out cover and glorious artwork serves to underline the fact that the 12-inch vinyl record and its attendant cover art is, when produced with the obvious love and care of this package, the ultimate aesthetic expression of music as art. And it sounds bloody great! You can keep your lossless digital files in the bland anonymity of your hard drive or tinny little mobile device, and smoke them.
01. Sea Song (5:54)
02. A Last Straw (5:27)
03. Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road (5:04)
04. Alifib (7:45)
05. Alifie (5:19)
06. Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road (5:18)
~ Bonus tracks:
07. The British Road (6:25)
08. Maryan (5:41)
09. Shipbuilding (4:47)
10. O Caroline (5:09)
Total Time – 54:49
Annie Barbazza – Lead Vocal, Farfisa Organ
John Greaves – Bass Guitar, Vocal (tracks 4 & 11) | Spoken Word (tracks 3,5 & 6)
Nicky Baigent – Bb Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Spoken Word (track 5)
Luke Crookes – Bassoon
William D. Drake – Piano, Farfisa Organ, Vocal (tracks 2,3 & 5)
Harry Escott – Cello
Craig Fortnam – Guitar, Farfisa Organ, Vocal (tracks 7 & 9)
Tommaso Franguelli – Vibes, Percussion
Cheb Nettles – Drums
Laurent Valero – Violin, Viola, Recorder, Bass Recorder
Record Label: Dark Companion
Date of Release: 17th May 2019